Publications

When this war ends. Psychologist Olga Movchan reflects on how to regain ourselves after the pandemic.

It's been over a year since the pandemic was declared, and we entered the first lockdown. At first, it seemed like a temporary measure. Then we began to realize that it wouldn't be over in two weeks. We tried to adapt to the new situation and, overall, we did quite well: we learned to work from home, socialize on Zoom, and even mastered the art of wearing business shirts with pajama bottoms.

Some managed not only to significantly expand their online skills but also to do a lot of good and useful things: start new projects, write books, participate in wonderful volunteer campaigns and build new businesses. We almost got used to it, but not quite. Gradually, most people started experiencing what psychologists call distress (a state where adaptive mechanisms are depleted or fail to function). And it's not surprising. From a psychological point of view, the pandemic is a kind of substitute for war.

The phenomena we've been living with for over a year are similar to those encountered during wartime (fear, isolation, loneliness, helplessness, unpredictability, inability to make plans, and so on). We talk about the future as if it were post-war times: "When the pandemic ends, we'll meet up," "When the pandemic ends, we'll travel."

A MEMORIAL DEDICATED TO THE VICTIMS OF COVID-19

Many have found themselves in situations threatening health, life, and overall well-being. Numerous have faced losses, each with their own: deceased loved ones, shattered families, lost jobs, collapsed businesses, unrealized plans. Of course, for most people, the pandemic experience has been traumatic. Even if we didn't perceive the situation as directly threatening to us, we feared for more vulnerable loved ones every day, abandoned our usual ways of life, and grappled with uncertainty and restrictions.

The peculiarity of the current situation lies in the fact that, despite the catastrophic nature of the pandemic, the lockdown is not a real war. It's shameful and even blasphemous to talk about missed theater performances and parties as if they were donuts in the siege of Leningrad. We're not in trenches but in our own apartments, and we're not starving; on the contrary, we're experimenting with intricate dishes made from excellent ingredients, which are conveniently delivered to us. In the evenings, we indulge ourselves in a comfortable chair with good wine and a book or by watching a wonderful film.

"Imagine finding a mask that got accidentally stuck in your jacket pocket five years later and thinking: 'Wow, there were times when we only wore masks on the streets, not those monstrously uncomfortable spacesuits'."

But precisely because most people remain in relative comfort and don't see the wounded and killed, only reading about losses on social media, the "war-like" experiences and fatigue we encounter aren't always easy to notice and even harder to acknowledge. Moreover, our enemy is quite ephemeral. It's challenging to direct our aggression and anger towards the virus. Therefore, they either get suppressed and accumulate or are channeled either towards familiar objects: the state, the media, external enemies, or inward towards those closed communities we find ourselves in, primarily our families. This is exacerbated by the unavailability of compensatory mechanisms that support our usual ways of releasing tension and satisfying our needs.

During the pandemic, much like during a war, planning anything becomes nearly impossible. I heard that in 2020, almost simultaneously, with just a couple of months apart, three companies with completely different spheres of activity opened in the USA, Norway, and Canada, independently of each other, and they were all named Uncertainty. And I wasn't surprised at all. During the pandemic, familiar supports became incredibly unreliable. It's like walking along a road, and suddenly the ground starts to give way right beneath your feet. After experiencing several times the crashing of plans, we lost our understanding: will air travel open up between countries, and even if it does, will flights be canceled at the last minute, and even if they're not canceled, will it be possible to return back and under what conditions. "It's unclear what they'll come up with tomorrow..." I think that even after the restrictions are lifted, we'll be cautious about making plans for some time.

Even the end of the lockdown, as eagerly awaited as it is, is met with skepticism by many. Is this forever, or just for a couple of months? "Imagine finding a mask that got accidentally stuck in your jacket pocket five years later and thinking: 'Wow, there were times when we only wore masks on the streets, not those monstrously uncomfortable spacesuits'," my son-in-law quoted a joke from the internet. And indeed, it's hard to believe yet that this is the end of the earthquake, not just a pause between new tremors.

Many people have developed a new fear. A person is marked as dangerous, a person's breath is labeled as hazardous, touching a person is dangerous. The lifting of restrictions and the opportunity to be in the same space with a large number of people may activate this fear, which has already become entrenched. Well, imagine: you're at a train station where crowds of people are without any masks, or in a small bar packed with people. Initially, a significant portion of people will be very cautious about inviting others into their space, limiting themselves to meetings outdoors or by habit, gathering with already designated "safe" acquaintances. It will take some time to relearn how to trust each other's safety.

It seems we'll need a new COVID etiquette (hopefully, not for long), but it hasn't been developed yet. At the same time, a considerable number of people perceive the situation in exactly the opposite way: from their point of view, the danger of the pandemic is greatly exaggerated, restrictive measures are a result of foolishness or conspiracy, and their relaxation is a reason to immediately increase public activity. The meeting of representatives of these groups will likely cause feelings of awkwardness, shame, and aggression on both sides.

This is compounded by the already intensified polarization in society. On one hand, sharp clashes of views are one way to channel the accumulated aggression. On the other hand, despite the globally shared experience of the pandemic, people have found themselves in very different situations. It's difficult for those who have suffered or lost relatives to understand those who have had COVID asymptomatically and have become completely convinced of the idea that this whole story is artificially inflated. In some countries, there was practically no lockdown, while in others, it was very strict; somewhere right now, the third wave is beginning, and everything is closing down again, while elsewhere, on the contrary, the relaxation of restrictive measures has already been announced. Some people tried not to significantly change their lives and continued to meet with each other despite the bans and they can't wait to throw away that very mask that has served them loyally for a year. Others, on the contrary, hardly left their homes and drastically limited any offline interactions.

COVID dissidents and proponents of restrictive measures disagree with each other. They irritate each other terribly, and, of course, perceive the easing of the lockdown differently. It's not entirely clear yet how to deal with this varying attitude towards COVID in practice. If I want to invite guests, can I arrange a gathering indoors? Or would it be inappropriate to invite people into an enclosed space? Conversely, if I suggest hosting a gathering outdoors in cool weather, will I be considered a COVID paranoid? If I propose meeting a colleague on Zoom, would that be seen as disrespectful? And if in a café, would that inconvenience them? Is it okay to hug an acquaintance when meeting, or is that still not accepted? Well, you get the idea. It seems we'll need a new COVID etiquette (hopefully, not for long), but it hasn't been developed yet.

The growing distrust and fear of one another are coupled with another phenomenon that emerged during the pandemic: the willingness to accept restrictions imposed by governments. Before the pandemic, it was unthinkable that traveling freely, visiting sick parents, or attending a daughter's birth would become impossible. It was hard to imagine that entering public places would require wearing masks, or that returning home would entail paying for tests and quarantine hotels. Such restrictions on freedom and demands for obedience were firmly associated with totalitarian states.

Now, we've experienced a situation where restrictive measures (sometimes blatantly ridiculous, like airlines requiring passengers to wear gloves throughout the flight) were declared life-saving and refusal to comply was seen as endangering lives. Our rights to freedom are now in conflict not with the state, but with society, for whom they pose a threat. The primary value of Western society—presumption of individuality—has ceased to be unshakable. Fear of disease spread has allowed collective interests to overshadow personal ones.

The danger of infection also brings about a new form of segregation. The loyal and vaccinated will have more opportunities to travel and attend events, while those unwilling or unable to follow the rules will face more restrictions. The combination of distrust and fear significantly affects relationships not only within our society but also with the government, potentially leading to a shift towards more totalitarian tendencies.

Social polarization worsens against the backdrop of post-traumatic desensitization (reduced sensitivity and ability to understand one's experiences as an attempt to avoid unpleasant feelings). The more efforts and energy go into suppressing feelings associated with the pandemic experience, the less there will be available for fostering healthier relationships between people and the government, and among each other.

We need time to come to terms with our experiences, to feel trust in life and in one another. Reduced sensitivity not only impedes coping with losses but also hinders acknowledging victories. Despite there being many, acknowledging victories is easier than acknowledging losses, but trying to avoid experiencing loss also blocks the ability to appreciate gains.

Assimilating the past experience is possible when it's already behind us. If we assume that this is indeed the end of the pandemic, then the period immediately after lifting restrictions is the most suitable time for this. We'll face a choice that will determine our ability to understand and conclude the experiences we encountered during the pandemic.

If, for some reason, people do not confront their intense feelings, are not ready to share them with others, do not want to burden anyone, and isolate themselves, this may contribute to increased desensitization and the growth of depressive disorders. The proposition to ignore, to disregard, to leave behind what happened leads individuals to further lose access to their feelings and obstructs the process of recovery.

A helpful strategy is collective grieving: creating rituals or games (perhaps our children will play pandemic as our parents played war), staging plays, discussing, publishing, and reading articles on the topic, being able to feel upset, mourn, cry, seek help (such as turning to therapists), and acknowledge achievements. The latter is also crucial. We shouldn't forget that we managed to live and work in unfamiliar conditions and under very unclear rules.

We need time to recover, to feel trust in life and in each other. The forthcoming life without lockdown is new again, not as it was before the pandemic. And although we'll need to adapt once more, I sincerely hope that the adaptation skills we gained during the pandemic, along with the opportunity to embrace each other and see each other face-to-face rather than through a screen, will make this process much easier. And then, surely, we'll be able to break free from both the frozenness (simultaneously constraining and protecting us from the bitterness of loss and the acknowledgment of victories) and bring freedom and novelty back into our lives.